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Term warfare: ‘Workaholism’ and work addiction are not the same

Reliable statistics on the prevalence of individuals addicted to work on a country-by-country basis are almost non-existent. Only two countries (Norway and Hungary) has carried out nationally representative studies. Norwegian studies led by Dr. Cecilie Andreassen reported that approximately 7.3%-8.3% of Norwegians are addicted to work using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. A Hungarian study led by Dr. Zsolt Demetrovics reported that 8.2% of the 18- to 64-year old population working at least 40 hours a week is at risk for work addiction using the Work Addiction Risk Test.

In a comprehensive literature review that I co-authored using US data, provided a tentative estimation of the prevalence of work addiction among Americans at 10%. Some estimates are as high as 15%-25% among employed individuals although some of these estimates appear to relate to excessive and committed working rather than a genuine addictive behaviour Others claim that the rates of work addiction are high amongst professionals (e.g., lawyers, medics, scientists). Such individuals may work very long hours, expend high effort in their job, delegate rarely, and may not necessarily be more productive. It also appears that those genuinely addicted to work appear to have a compulsive drive to gain approval and success but can result in impaired judgment, poor health, burnout, and breakdowns as opposed to what might be described ‘enthusiastic workaholism’ where few problems are associated with the behaviour.

Word cloud on the subject of workaholism.

Illustration with word cloud on the subject of workaholism

Last month, I and two of my colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions examining various myths concerning work addiction. One of the myths we explored was that ‘work addiction is similar to other behavioural addictions’. While work addiction does indeed have many similarities to other behavioural addictions (e.g., gambling, gaming, shopping, sex, etc.), it fundamentally differs from them in a critical way because it is the only behaviour that individuals are typically required to do eight hours a day and is an activity that individuals receive gratification from the local environment and/or society more generally for engaging in the activity. There may also be some benefits from normal [and excessive] work (e.g., financial security through earning a good salary, financial bonuses based on productivity, international travel, free or reduced medical insurance, company car, etc.). Unlike other behavioural and substance addictions where one of the key criteria is typically a negative impact on occupational duties, work addicts cannot negatively impact on the activity they are already engaged in (except in the sense that their addiction to work may impacts on work productivity or work quality due to resulting psychological and/or physical illness).

In some respects, work addiction is similar to exercise addiction in that it is an activity that should be a part of people’s lives and often has some benefits even when engaged in excessively. Such activities have been described by Ian Brown as ‘mixed blessings’ addictions. For instance, in the case of exercise addiction, problematic exercise that interferes with both job and relationships can still have some positive consequences (such as being physically fit). However, it should be emphasized that such positive consequences are typically short lasting, and in the long run, addiction will take its toll on health (even exercise in excess is physiologically unhealthy in the long run in terms of immune function, cardiovascular health, bone health, and mental health). Furthermore, some research suggests that work and exercise addiction have also similar personality correlates different from other addictions, namely high conscientiousness. This might contribute to the fact that work addiction is so perplexing because this personality trait is consistently linked to better health.

Another myth we explored was ‘work addiction and workaholism are the same thing’. The issue of whether ‘workaholism’ and ‘work addiction’ are the same entity depends on how these constructs are defined. For instance, I have argued that any behaviour that fulfils six core components (i.e., salience, conflict, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and relapse) should be operationalized as an addiction. These six components have also been the basis of many psychometric instruments for assessing potential addictions including work addiction (such as the Bergen Work Addiction Scale that I co-developed and was published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Scandinavian Psychology). The empirical research carried out by myself and others over the last five years concerning ‘work addiction’ is theoretically rooted in the core addiction literature whereas ‘workaholism’ncludes a wider range of theoretical underpinnings and in some research is a construct seen as something positive rather than negative. Arguably, in popular press and in common everyday language ‘workaholism’ is often used as a positive notiono describe very engaged workers, which adds significantly to the confusion about the two terms.

‘Workaholism’ is arguably a generic term that throughout the literature (as well as by lay people and the popular press) appears to equate to excessive working irrespective of whether the consequences are advantageous or disadvantageous. There is clearly lack of precise dictionary definitions of ‘work addiction’ and ‘workaholism’, and there is no reason to assume they could not be used as synonyms. However, the common use of the term ‘workaholism’ to denote anything related to high involvement in work may suggest that for practical reasons in the professional literature on work addiction, understood within addiction framework, it would be advisable to limit usage of this term. While, it is almost impossible to control natural usage of terms, preference for ‘work addiction’ in addiction literature would be a way to emphasize the addiction framework in which the phenomenon is being conceptualized. In short, ‘work addiction’ is a psychological construct while ‘workaholism’ is arguably a more generic term.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., Kravina, L., Jensen, F., & Pallesen, S. (2014). The prevalence of workaholism: A survey study in a nationally representative sample of norwegian employees. PLoS ONE, 9, e102446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102446

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a work addiction scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265–272. doi:10.1111/sjop.2012.53.issue-3

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Sinha, R., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2016) The Relationships between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE, 11: e0152978. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0152978

Brown, R. I. F. (1993). Some contributions of the study of gambling to the study of other addictions. In W.R. Eadington & J. Cornelius (Eds.), Gambling Behavior and Problem Gambling (pp. 341-372). Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

Griffiths, M. D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Workaholism is still a useful construct. Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 97-100.

Griffiths, M. D. (2005b). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191–197

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. & Atroszko, P.A. (2018). Ten myths about work addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Epu ahead of print. doi: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.05

Griffiths, M.D. & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1(3), 87-95.

Paksi, B., Rózsa, S., Kun, B., Arnold, P., Demetrovics, Z. (2009). Addictive behaviors in Hungary: The methodology and sample description of the National Survey on Addiction Problems in Hungary (NSAPH). [in Hungarian] Mentálhigiéné és Pszichoszomatika, 10(4), 273-300.

Quinones, C., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Addiction to work: A critical review of the workaholism construct and recommendations for assessment. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 10, 48–59.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Career to the ground: A brief overview of our recent papers on workaholism

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, sex addiction, responsible gambling, shopping addictionexercise addiction, and youth gambling, here is a round-up of papers that my colleagues and I have published on workaholism and work addiction over the last few years.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Hetland, J. & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a Work Addiction Scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265-272.

  • Research into excessive work has gained increasing attention over the last 20 years. Terms such as “workaholism,””work addiction” and “excessive work” have been used interchangeably. Given the increase in empirical research, this study presents the development of the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS), a new psychometrically validated scale for the assessment of work addiction. A pool of 14 items, with two reflecting each of seven core elements of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse, and problems) was initially constructed. The items were then administered to two samples, one recruited by a web survey following a television broadcast about workaholism (n=11,769) and one comprising participants in the second wave of a longitudinal internet-based survey about working life (n=368). The items with the highest corrected item-total correlation from within each of the seven addiction elements were retained in the final scale. The assumed one-factor solution of the refined seven-item scale was acceptable (root mean square error of approximation=0.077, Comparative Fit Index=0.96, Tucker-Lewis Index=0.95) and the internal reliability of the two samples were 0.84 and 0.80, respectively. The scores of the BWAS converged with scores on other workaholism scales, except for a Work Enjoyment subscale. A suggested cut-off for categorization of workaholics showed good discriminative ability in terms of working hours, leadership position, and subjective health complaints. It is concluded that the BWAS has good psychometric properties.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Hetland, J., Kravina, L., Jensen, F., & Pallesen, S. (2014). The prevalence of workaholism: A survey study in a nationally representative sample of Norwegian employees. PLoS ONE, 9(8): e102446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102446.

  • Workaholism has become an increasingly popular area for empirical study. However, most studies examining the prevalence of workaholism have used non-representative samples and measures with poorly defined cut-off scores. To overcome these methodological limitations, a nationally representative survey among employees in Norway (N = 1,124) was conducted. Questions relating to gender, age, marital status, caretaker responsibility for children, percentage of full-time equivalent, and educational level were asked. Workaholism was assessed by the use of a psychometrically validated instrument (i.e., Bergen Work Addiction Scale). Personality was assessed using the Mini-International Personality Item Pool. Results showed that the prevalence of workaholism was 8.3% (95% CI= 6.7–9.9%). An adjusted logistic regression analysis showed that workaholism was negatively related to age and positively related to the personality dimensions agreeableness, neuroticism, and intellect/imagination. Implications for these findings are discussed.

Quinones, C. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Addiction to work: recommendations for assessment. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 10, 48-59.

  • Workaholism was first conceptualized in the early 1970s as a behavioral addiction, featuring compulsive use and interpersonal conflict. The current article briefly examines the empirical and theoretical literature over the past four decades. In relation to conceptualization and measurement, how the concept of workaholism has worsened from using dimensions based on anecdotal evidence, ad-hoc measures with weak theoretical foundation, and poor factorial validity of multidimensional conceptualizations is highlighted. Benefits of building on the addiction literature to conceptualize workaholism are presented (including the only instrument that has used core addiction criteria: the Bergen Work Addiction Scale). Problems estimating accurate prevalence estimates of work addiction are also presented. Individual and sociocultural risk factors, and the negative consequences of workaholism from the addiction perspective (e.g., depression, burnout, poor health, life dissatisfaction, family/relationship problems) are discussed. The current article summarizes how current research can be used to evaluate workaholism by psychiatric–mental health nurses in clinical practice, including primary care and mental health settings.

Karanika-Murray, M., Pontes, H.M., Griffiths, M.D. & Biron, C. (2015). Sickness presenteeism determines job satisfaction via affective-motivational states. Social Science and Medicine, 139, 100-106.

  • Introduction: Research on the consequences of sickness presenteeism, or the phenomenon of attending work whilst ill, has focused predominantly on identifying its economic, health, and absenteeism outcomes, in the process neglecting important attitudinal-motivational outcomes. Purpose: A mediation model of sickness presenteeism as a determinant of job satisfaction via affective-motivational states (specifically engagement with work and addiction to work) is proposed. This model adds to the current literature, by focussing on (i) job satisfaction as an outcome of presenteeism, and (ii) the psychological processes associated with this. It posits sickness presenteeism as psychological absence and work engagement and work addiction as motivational states that originate in that. Methods: An online survey on sickness presenteeism, work engagement, work addiction, and job satisfaction was completed by 158 office workers. Results: The results of bootstrapped mediation analysis with observable variables supported the model. Sickness presenteeism was negatively associated with job satisfaction. This relationship was fully mediated by both engagement with work and addiction to work, explaining a total of 48.07% of the variance in job satisfaction. Despite the small sample, the data provide preliminary support for the model. Conclusions: Given that there is currently no available research on the attitudinal consequences of sickness presenteeism, these findings offer promise for advancing theorising in this area.

Quinones, C., Griffiths, M.D. & Kakabadse, N. (2016). Compulsive Internet use and workaholism: An exploratory two-wave longitudinal study. Computers in Human Behavior, 60, 492-499.

  • Workaholism refers to the uncontrollable need to work and comprises working compulsively (WC) and working excessively (WE). Compulsive Internet Use (CIU), involves a similar behavioural pattern although in specific relation to Internet use. Since many occupations rely upon use of the Internet, and the lines between home and the workplace have become increasingly blurred, a self-reinforcing pattern of workaholism and CIU could develop from those vulnerable to one or the other. The present study explored the relationship between these compulsive behaviours utilizing a two-wave longitudinal study over six months. A total of 244 participants who used the Internet as part of their occupational role and were in full-time employment completed the online survey at each wave. This survey contained previously validated measures of each variable. Data were analysed using cross-lagged analysis. Results indicated that Internet usage and CIU were reciprocally related, supporting the existence of tolerance in CIU. It was also found that CIU at Time 1 predicted WC at Time 2 and that WE was unrelated to CIU. It is concluded that a masking mechanism appears a sensible explanation for the findings. Although further studies are needed, these findings encourage a more holistic evaluation and treatment of compulsive behaviours.

Orosz, G., Dombi, E., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). Analyzing models of work addiction: Single factor and bi-factor models of the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

  • Work addiction (‘workaholism’) has become an increasingly studied topic in the behavioral addictions literature and had led to the development of a number of instruments to assess it. One such instrument is the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS). However, the BWAS has never been investigated in Eastern-European countries. The goal of the present study was to examine the factor structure, the reliability and cut-off scores of the BWAS in a comprehensive Hungarian sample. This study is a direct extension of the original validation of BWAS by providing results on the basis of representative data and the development of appropriate cut-off scores. The study utilized an online questionnaire with a Hungarian representative sample including 500 respondents (F = 251; Mage = 35.05 years) who completed the BWAS. A series of confirmatory factor analyses were carried out leading to a short, 7-item first-order factor structure and a longer 14-item seven-factor nested structure. Despite the good validity of the longer version, its reliability was not as high as it could have been. One-fifth (20.6 %) of the Hungarians who used the internet at least weekly were categorized as work addicts using the BWAS. It is recommended that researchers use the original seven items from the Norwegian scale in order to facilitate and stimulate cross-national research on addiction to work.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Sinha, R., Hetland, J. & Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationships between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE, 11(5): e0152978. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0152978.

  • Despite the many number of workaholism studies, large-scale studies have been lacking. The present study utilized an open web-based cross-sectional survey assessing symptoms of psychiatric disorders and workaholism among 16,426 workers (Mage=37.3 years, SD=11.4, range=16-75 years). Participants were administered the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale, the Obsession-Compulsive Inventory-Revised, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, and the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, along with additional questions examining demographic and work-related variables. Analyses of variance revealed significant workaholism group differences in terms of age, marital status, education, professional position, work sector, occupation, and annual income. No gender differences were found, except in a logistic regression analysis, indicating that women had a greater risk than men of being categorized as workaholics. Correlations between all psychiatric symptoms and workaholism were significant and positively correlated. Workaholism comprised the dependent variable in a four-step linear multiple hierarchical regression analysis as well as in a logistic regression analysis. In the linear regression analysis demographics (age, gender, and marital status) explained 0.8% of the variance in workaholism. The mental health variables (ADHD, OCD, anxiety, and depression) explained between 1.9% and 11.9% of the variance. In an adjusted logistic regression analysis, all psychiatric symptoms were positively associated with workaholism. Although most effect sizes were relatively small, the study’s findings expand our understanding of possible mental health predictors of workaholism, and sheds new light on the reality of adult ADHD in work life. The study’s implications, strengths, and shortcomings are also discussed.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Workaholism is still a useful construct Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 97-100.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Griffiths, M.D. & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1(3), 87-95.

Karanika-Murray, M., Duncan, N., Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Organizational identification, work engagement, and job satisfaction. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30, 1019-1033.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths M.D. (2014). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A case study. Explore: Journal of Science and Healing, 10, 193-195.